Scotsman Obituaries: Dr Patricia Thomas, go-ahead Head of James Gillespie’s

Dr Patricia Thomas BSc PhD AMRSC. Born: 23 October 1927 in Leeds, Yorkshire. Died: 15 March 2023 in Edinburgh, aged 95
Dr Patricia Thomas in her office in 1990Dr Patricia Thomas in her office in 1990
Dr Patricia Thomas in her office in 1990

Patricia Thomas, head for 16 years of James Gillespie’s High School, died peacefully after a short illness at 95. Thanks to former pupil Muriel Spark and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Gillespie’s is one of the most famous schools in the world. Fifty years ago, though, it was in painful transition from high-end girls-only grammar to a co-educational area comprehensive.

Its reinvention, in the teeth of parental fury, was sprung at such short notice in 1973 that, when the first little chaps trotted through its Marchmont gates that August, there were still no boys’ toilets. As morale plummeted, staff fled.

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Yet from April 1975, and with real imagination, Pat Thomas set Gillespie’s on the confident, sector-leading course it has sailed ever since.

Industrious and smart, young Patricia Fothergill prospered at Wetherby’s St James Primary School and, after King James Grammar School in Knaresborough, in 1951 emerged from the University of Leeds with a science degree and a PhD in Organic Chemistry.

Unusually for an ambitious woman of that generation, she never shed a pleasant regional accent. She secured a position with the Calico Printers Association Ltd, Manchester and was part of the team that developed “hi-vis” fluorescent yellow dye, to the abiding joy of officious little men everywhere.

In 1951 she married Gordon Thomas, an engineer and lecturer who in 1966 would win a post at Edinburgh’s Napier College, and “retired to have a family” in 1954.

When she resumed work in 1961, it was as a teacher. Five years at Greenacres School for Girls in Banstead, Surrey, were followed by brief service at another private school, Lansdowne House in Edinburgh. Dr Thomas then held successive positions in West Lothian – Armadale Academy, Craigshill High School in Livingston (as Principal Teacher of Science) and, from 1972 to 1975, as an Assistant Head Teacher at Blackburn Academy.

It was most unusual for a third-tier AHT to leap to outright school leadership, but Dr Thomas laid out her Gillespie’s stall with one immediate decree: from now on, junior boys and girls would all take classes in Home Economics, Technical Drawing, Metalwork and so on – together, and on equal terms. In the Scotland of 1975, this was sensational. Staff gibbered, but she refused to back down. And her authority was never questioned again.

Dr Thomas now pondered wider challenges. The school had serious capacity problems, with less academic pupils largely consigned to the distinctly blue-collar Darroch Annexe, half a mile away.

There was deep social division, with frightful poverty in some pockets of the catchment: children without beds in slums without bathrooms. There were chafing “December leavers” – 15 year-olds desperate to put school behind them. And, though completed only in 1966, the new school campus on Lauderdale Street was already disintegrating.

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What Dr Thomas astutely did was to leave all cherished traditions serenely in place – blazers, prefects, houses, prizegiving, Founder’s Day and even the school song – while making radical reforms. She also cut a quiet deal with Lothian Regional Council overlords. She would put up with fewer teachers than was quite ideal, in return for having first pick of the best candidates. Dr Thomas recruited well, set up a clear command structure and excellent arrangements for Guidance. Colleagues were shaken when she quietly briefed them on any signs a child was being sexually abused at home. That gritty West Lothian apprenticeship had taught her much.

She introduced, too, a week-long summer-term jaunt to Loch Tay for First Year pupils; and a Parent-Teacher Association. But it was not until the 1978-79 session – when the school was at last fully comprehensive – that she made her boldest moves yet. These included a week of compulsory work-experience for all senior pupils, however academic. And those “hard cases down the Annexe”? From 1981, there was a SCOPE programme – Student Centred Occupational Preparation Exercises, directed in a special unit by the 15-year olds themselves.

To great surprise, the pupils set rules stricter than teachers would have dared – even demanding the odd expulsion – studied things they wanted to study, started little enterprises, and kept accounts and records. Dr Thomas had spotted a similar scheme in Denmark and the transformation, within weeks, in the confidence and bearing of those Edinburgh teenagers was remarkable.

She went on to develop staff in-service training, a clear anti-racism strategy, visiting lecturers for senior pupils, courses in such languages as Urdu, and enjoyed – thanks to astute appointments in Music and Drama – quite the renaissance in the performing arts.

It is no accident that so many notable former pupils – broadcasting brothers Grant Stott and John Leslie, actors Michael Thomson, Robert Cavanah and Nicola Auld, saxophonist Colin Skinner and novelist Ben McPherson – are from her time.

By 1983 Gillespie’s was the sort of assured school where children read books on the lawns, the Remedial mistress strode about the place in a man’s suit, one mistress handed out chocolate during A-Level History, and several senior pupils were openly gay. No one batted an eyelid. And Patricia Thomas accomplished all this despite years of council cuts, cynical politics – Gillespie’s was targeted for EIS strike-action because the local MP was a Tory – and rank sexism in high places.

Several tales of what Dr Thomas endured, as one of only eight female head teachers in Scotland’s state secondaries at the time, do not bear repeating. A man would have been admired as “forthright”. She – well-informed, assertive, articulate – was damned as “difficult”.

Yet she was in no sense formidable. Unassuming, a little aloof, she liked classic Fifties fashion and wore it well. She was very tall – at least six feet two – yet was always in heels. Fragrance lingered in corridors behind her and, though we never figured out how she did it, Pat Thomas knew every pupil by name – on a school-roll north of 1,100.

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Dr Thomas retired, rather reluctantly, in June 1991, and enjoyed many terrifyingly active years, driving into her mid-nineties and living in her own home until the last days of her life. She became a governor of St George’s School for Girls, and played a great deal of bridge.

In October 2016, when its rebuilt campus was officially opened, she was lured back to James Gillespie’s for her first visit in years. Dr Thomas was presented to other guests of honour, praised by name and in detail by her latest successor, stayed for lunch and was visibly moved.

Gordon Thomas passed away in July 2009. Patricia Thomas is survived by her son Ian, her daughter Carol, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Lindsey, died in 2012.


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